2019 PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award

Ben Goldfarb Received the 2019 PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award for Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter.

Book cover of Eager the surprising secret life of beavers and why they matter. By Ben Goldfarb.

PEN American Center, the largest branch of the world’s leading literary and human rights organization, announced this week the winners and runners-up of the 2019 PEN Literary Awards, the most comprehensive literary awards program in the country. Among the awards is the PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award, which celebrates writing that exemplifies literary excellence on the subject of physical and biological sciences. The winner receives a cash award of $10,000 and is honored at the PEN Literary Awards.

The 2019 PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award Winner is:

Ben Goldfarb, Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter (Chelsea Green)

From the judges’ citation:

“Sometimes the best thing humans can do for the environment is hand it over to another species. While it is widely known that beavers dam waterways, often in ways that frustrate human plans, it is rarely acknowledged that these nocturnal rodents can radically transform vast swathes of land, boosting biodiversity, recharging aquifers, purifying water, reducing pollution, and protecting against erosion and wildfires. Vast in scope but beautifully specific in detail, ‘Eager: The Surprising, Secret Lives of Beavers and Why They Matter’ is an important environmental saga with clear implications for modern-day ecological policy. This true natural history portrays the inequities of settler impact on North America on a broad scale through a particular creature and ecosystem—revealing that we once lived in a much different world, and that we will struggle to reclaim that world without interspecies cooperation. While maintaining a strong central storyline, Goldfarb offers eye-opening, fascinating vignettes about these industrious engineering rodents and the people whose lives are devoted to reintroducing, protecting, and championing them. At times tragic and at times hopeful, ‘Eager’ is a charming, surprising, and compelling lesson in the intricacies of ecosystems, and the limits of human hubris.”

Judges for 2019:

Arianne Shahvisi is a Kurdish-British academic philosopher based at the Brighton and Sussex Medical School. She completed her PhD at the University of Cambridge on the philosophy of cosmology. Her current research focuses on race, gender, and migration. Shahvisi edits the science section of literary magazine The Offing, which seeks out and supports work by those marginalized in literary spaces, and serves as an editorial board member for Kohl: A Journal for Body and Gender Research. She has written commentary for the New Statesman, Jacobin, and The Conversation.

Jeff Vandermeer has been called “the weird Thoreau” by The New Yorker for his engagement with ecological issues in novels such as the Arthur C. Clarke Award-finalist Borne and the NYT best-selling Southern Reach trilogy (Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance). VanderMeer’s fiction has won the Shirley Jackson Award and the Nebula Award, among others, and been translated into 35 languages. His nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post. He lives in Tallahassee, Florida.

Christie Wilcox, Ph.D. is an award-winning science writer and the author of Venomous: How Earth’s Deadliest Creatures Mastered Biochemistry, named one of Smithsonian Magazine’s Best Books about Science 2016 and Amazon’s Best Books of 2016. Her bylines include The Washington Post, National Geographic, Popular Science, and Discover. She currently lives on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, and edits for the YouTube channel SciShow.

The PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award was founded by scientist and author Dr. Edward O. Wilson, activist and actor Harrison Ford, and the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation. The award is also supported by James and Cathy Stone. The inaugural award was conferred in 2011.

Examples of published works that exemplify the quality of writing the award is designed to acknowledge include Rachel Carlson’s Silent Spring (1962), Dr. James Watson’s The Double Helix (1969), Lewis Thomas’s The Lives of a Cell (1978), and Douglas Hofstadter’s Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (1979).

More about the Book:

Washington Post “50 Notable Works of Nonfiction”

Science News “Favorite Science Books of 2018”

Booklist “Top Ten Science/Technology Book of 2018”

“A marvelously humor-laced page-turner about the science of semi-aquatic rodents…. A masterpiece of a treatise on the natural world.”—The Washington Post

In Eager, environmental journalist Ben Goldfarb reveals that our modern idea of what a healthy landscape looks like and how it functions is wrong, distorted by the fur trade that once trapped out millions of beavers from North America’s lakes and rivers. The consequences of losing beavers were profound: streams eroded, wetlands dried up, and species from salmon to swans lost vital habitat. Today, a growing coalition of “Beaver Believers”–including scientists, ranchers, and passionate citizens–recognizes that ecosystems with beavers are far healthier, for humans and non-humans alike, than those without them. From the Nevada deserts to the Scottish highlands, Believers are now hard at work restoring these industrious rodents to their former haunts. Eager is a powerful story about one of the world’s most influential species, how North America was colonized, how our landscapes have changed over the centuries, and how beavers can help us fight drought, flooding, wildfire, extinction, and the ravages of climate change. Ultimately, it’s about how we can learn to coexist, harmoniously and even beneficially, with our fellow travelers on this planet.

“Goldfarb’s evident affection for beavers shines through the book. When he goes one-on-one with beavers, their individual personalities come through. Occasionally he gets carried away.”—Barbara J. King, The Washington Post

“His entirely captivating new book…is surely the most passionate, most detailed, and most readable love-note these dour furry little workaholics will ever get.”—Steve Donoghue, The Christian Science Monitor

“In his intriguing debut…environmental journalist Ben Goldfarb details the multitude of ways beavers impact the landscape.”—Becky Libourel Diamond, Bookpage

“Beginning with the early fur traders who depleted beaver populations and leading to those attempting to reverse the negative opinion about beaver’s detrimental influence, this comprehensive book provides a well-rounded consideration of a frequently misunderstood species.”—Diana Hartle, Library Journal

“Most people picture a clear, fast-moving creek with a narrow course and lots of rocks. This vision, award-winning environmental journalist Goldfarb informs us in this fresh, historically grounded look at North America’s largest rodent, is wrong.”—Nancy Bent, Booklist

“In this diverting volume, environmental journalist Goldfarb sings the praises of beavers.”—Publishers Weekly

“The author consistently convinces readers of the truth of this assessment. It’s vital, he writes, that we learn to coexist with these ecosystem engineers because they can help restore our rivers, forestall the loss of biodiversity, and reduce the damages of climate change. An eight-page photograph insert further brings beavers and their world to life. Filled with hard facts and fascinating people (and animals), this is an authoritative, vigorous call for understanding and action…”—Kirkus

Finalists for 2019:

The World in a Grain, Vince Beiser (Riverhead)

The Beginning of Everything, Andrea Buchanan (Pegasus Books)

Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter, Ben Goldfarb (Chelsea Green)

Blue Dreams: The Science and the Story of the Drugs that Changed Our Minds, Lauren Slater (Little, Brown and Company)

She Has Her Mother’s Laugh, Carl Zimmer (Dutton Books)

Longlist for 2019:

What is Real?, Adam Becker (Basic Books)

The World in a Grain, Vince Beiser (Riverhead)

Timefulness, Marcia Bjornerud (Princeton University Press)

The Poison Squad, Deborah Blum (Penguin Press)

The Beginning of Everything, Andrea Buchanan (Pegasus Books)

Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter, Ben Goldfarb (Chelsea Green)

The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life, David Quammen (Simon & Schuster)

Seaweed Chronicles, Susan Hand Shetterly (Algonquin Books)

Blue Dreams: The Science and the Story of the Drugs that Changed Our Minds, Lauren Slater (Little, Brown and Company)

She Has Her Mother’s Laugh, Carl Zimmer (Dutton Books)

Past winners: Siddhartha Mukherjee, James Gleick, Leonard Mlodinow, Carl HartJoshua HorwitzLauren Redniss, and Lindsey Fitzharris.

Read about the PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award on the website for the PEN American Center

Press Coverage

“Spokane Author Ben Goldfarb Wins Science Writing Prize from PEN America for ‘Eager,’ His Book About Beavers.” The Spokesman-Review. By Carolyn Lamberson. February 27, 2019.

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